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review 2015-06-13 06:19
The Huns , by E.A. Thompson
The Huns - Edward Arthur Thompson


Anthony Quinn as Attila wearing surely the most absurd helmet in the history of cheapo film productions.


The nation of the Huns, scarcely known to ancient documents, dwelt beyond the Maeotic marshes beside the frozen ocean, and surpassed every extreme of ferocity.

- Ammianus Marcellinus



Attila the Hun! Is there any name more evocative of barbarian hordes looting, burning and murdering their way through civilization except possibly Genghis Khan's? 


In the final, thirty-first book of Ammianus Marcellinus' magnificent history of the late Roman Empire is to be found the earliest extant source on the customs of the Turkic nomads called the Huns. Since the Huns were little more than bogey men to me, I thought it was time to see what one knows about them.


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review 2015-04-23 20:44
The Nobility of Failure , by Ivan Morris
The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan - Ivan Morris


- Utagawa Toyokuni (1769 - 1825)



As Ivan Morris (1925-1976) is best known for his translations and interpretations of the hyper-aestheticized culture of the Japanese imperial court of the Heian era (794-1185), one may well be startled to learn that the last book he published before his regrettably premature death was an examination of the role of failed heroes throughout Japanese history. In fact, he tells us in his preface to The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan (1975) that Mishima Yukio complained to him that his focus on the Heian period court ignored Japan's long martial history and left out crucial aspects of the Japanese character. Morris took this to heart and wrote a 500 page response examining the lives and deaths of nine famous Japanese men of action which closes with a chapter about the kamikaze pilots of the Second World War. Morris chose to focus on tragic heroes, because they play a role in Japanese culture which has no real counterpart in the West.(*)


Perhaps when searching for a Western analogue one might think of Admiral Nelson being struck down just as his greatest victory was revealing itself, but to die under such circumstances would not be viewed as tragic by a samurai; on the contrary, Nelson's fate would be the most hotly desired goal of any samurai. The Spartans who fell at Thermopylae were defeated, but they slowed and weakened the Persians so that the rest of Greece could finish the job on the plain of Marathon; moreover, they shared the samurai's estimation of honorable death in battle. Not even the men who died at the Alamo - most of whom did not share the death-dedicated values of the Spartans and samurai - are tragic heroes in the sense at hand because their lengthy resistance and ultimate defeat assured the subsequent defeat of the Mexican forces. 


No, a tragic hero in the sense considered here is one who dies not only in defeat, but the more abject, ineluctable and obviously vain (from our point of view) the defeat, the greater the tragic hero is. As Morris mentions, just such heroes were the men Mishima most admired, and it is now clear to me that Mishima was not trying to spur an uprising when he addressed that band of soldiers from that balcony. He knew perfectly well that they were not going to do anything, and, even if they did, they would accomplish nothing against the power of the Japanese state. No, he joined the men he most admired by dying in the most pointless defeat he could arrange. After speaking his bold and (by his lights) noble words and viewing the probable mix of consternation, fear and disbelief in his audience's faces, he withdrew to a small coterie of his fellow believers and committed seppuku (harakiri) surely the most painful way to kill oneself (except possibly burning oneself alive).


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review 2015-04-05 06:34
Studies in Chinese Philosophy , by A.C. Graham
Studies In Chinese Philosophy And Philos... Studies In Chinese Philosophy And Philosophical Literature - A.C. Graham



I was previously familiar with the Welsh sinologist A.C. Graham (1919-1991) through his excellent translations in Poems of the Late Tang, but it turns out that he was much more the philosopher than poet. Graham wrote a few original books on philosophical matters, as well as a number of books that closely examine classic Chinese philosophical thought. Studies in Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Literature (1986) is a collection of essays Graham published in academic journals for specialists but which I, a non-sinologist quite incapable of reading Chinese, found riveting. Yes, riveting!


Just as I read about other cultures for their own intrinsic interest, I am also interested in the critical reflections these throw back on my own culture. Even the as yet superficial familiarity with aspects of Chinese philosophy I have acquired to date has opened my eyes to tacit assumptions made in Western thought. And this is not an unusual phenomenon; as Graham writes in his Introduction:


It hardly needs saying that a Westerner can never be as fully at home in the traditional Chinese world-picture as in his own. However far he penetrates he never ceases to impose Western presuppositions, and from time to time awaken to one of them with an astonished "How could I have failed to see that?". ... Later, as he finds his bearings, he comes to appreciate that if in his own tradition there seem to be arguments with no missing links or grounds it is because he and the philosopher ask the same questions from the same unspoken assumptions, and that in Chinese arguments too the gaps fill in when the questions and assumptions are rightly identified. ... One learns to distrust any interpretation which credits the Chinese with too obvious a fallacy. The concepts are different, perhaps even the categories behind them, but the implicit logic is the same.


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review 2015-03-23 03:51
1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed , by Eric H. Cline
1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed - Eric H Cline


A representation of the mural on the northern wall of Ramesses III's mortuary temple depicting his victory over the "Sea People"



The collapse of the late Bronze Age cultures in the eastern Mediterranean, redux



Within a few decades around 1200 BCE most of the thriving cities around the eastern Mediterranean had been burnt to the ground, abandoned or reduced to a shadow of their former selves, including Mycenae, Thebes and Tiryns on the Grecian peninsula, Knossos on Crete,(*) and Troy in western Anatolia, to mention only names which are widely known. The worst of this Catastrophe, as Robert Drews termed it, appears to have taken place in Anatolia, Syria and the Levant, leading to the collapse of the Hittite Empire and the smaller kingdoms located in that region. Mesopotamia was not affected (apparently it was too far inland), but the Egyptians had to fight for their lives multiple times between 1208 and 1176 BCE and managed to defeat the marauders we have come to call the "Sea People" (as well as the Libyans twice), following the formula of a 19th century French historian. Nonetheless, the Egyptians were sufficiently weakened that their empire began to contract markedly: the victories over the Sea People were the swan song of the New Kingdom. Moreover, a Dark Age lasting as long as 400 years commenced on the Greek peninsula and the Aegean isles, where populations decreased and often moved to more easily defended fastnesses. The light finally began to shine there again in the age of the Homeric poets, which I discuss in my review of Moses Finley's The World of Odysseus


Last summer I wrote about Robert Drews' The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe CA. 1200 B.C. (1993), which reviewed the many extant theories about the causes of the Catastrophe and then proposed another. But many questions remained unanswered and the yet hypothetical nature of all the explanations was painfully obvious. Inaugurating a new series in ancient history, Princeton University Press has recently released 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (2014), by Eric H. Cline, which I've read in the expectation that some improvement in our grasp of those distant events had been made in the intervening two decades. Such is indeed the case.


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review 2015-02-09 00:06
The Last Centuries of Byzantium , by Donald M. Nicol
The Last Centuries of Byzantium, 1261-1453 (Second Edition) - Donald M. Nicol


Late Byzantine copy (c. 1400) of lost Byzantine icon commemorating Empress Theodora's victory over iconoclasm 



Constantinople's swan song: the final two centuries of the fabled city's long, long history, from the time it was recovered from the "Latins" till when the gunpowder and cannon of the Turks had grown too powerful for the massive but ancient city fortifications to withstand. Thereafter, it remained a great city serving as the capital of the Ottoman Empire, but more than just its name was changed.


Donald M. Nicol begins The Last Centuries of Byzantium, 1261-1453 (second, revised edition 1993) with a brief recounting of the fall of Constantinople to western European "crusaders" in 1204 and a summary history of the brief existence of the Latin Empire of the East. This Latin empire produced some very interesting hybrids, particularly the Frankish kingdom of the Morea whose cultural influence on the renascent Greek Byzantium was significant (but I've discussed this in earlier reviews). After the fall, the Greek resistance disintegrated and then reformed about three essential condensation points - Arta (in the Epiros), Nicaea and Trebizond, all of whom proclaimed their own "Emperor of the Romans". (Actually, Trebizond didn't quite: their rulers were called the Grand Komnenoi, but then Trebizond was exceptional in many respects.) Nicol's second chapter describes how the Nicaeans ultimately dominated their rivals and recovered Constantinople in 1261 under the leadership of Michael Palaiologos. This complex story is further complicated by the alliance of some of the Greeks with the Latins against the other Greeks (with the former abandoning their Latin allies on the field of battle!) and the alliance of the Genoese with Michael against the Latins (primarily Franks and Venetians) in Constantinople.(*)


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